Channeling my inner Susan: creating strong female characters.
by Gregory Zeigler
A novel about a real life strong woman—Beryl Markham.
As is the case with most authors, I have done many presentations in schools, libraries and bookstores about my books and the craft of writing. And I often get asked about the challenges of creating strong female characters. The implication being that particular writing task must be especially hard for a male author. I mention three things: tap into your feminine, model your characters after strong women you know and admire, and read as many books with strong female protagonists as you can.
I also enjoy sharing the creation story of Jake Goddard and Susan Brand for the first in my eco-thriller trilogy, The Straw That Broke. I wanted a strong man and a strong woman, (both flawed but smart and capable), to eventually form a team. In this case, the pair would be searching for Lyndall Burke, a young woman who is abducted in Jackson Hole when the story begins.
As things progressed Susan was indeed strong and was doing some impressive things whereas Jake seemed to be spinning his wheels. Try as I might, I couldn't resolve this dichotomy. (But wait! Aren't you the author, I hear you insist. Truly, I say, characters take on a life of their own but that is a subject for another post.) So, as I often do, I consulted with my daughter, Jamie, a published poet. "Well, Dad," she said. "Perhaps you're just channeling your inner Susan." I have come to believe that is exactly what was happening. And as tiresome as it may sound, that is my first piece of advice for any male author asking for guidance. Get in touch with your feminine side.
What the cover doesn't mention is that Sonya had to struggle to create a work (spying) life (children) balance.
Because she is a cop, it was easy for me to imbue Susan with elements that are traditionally male. She is damn good with a Glock, for instance, and uses it to wound and disarm a suspect. But being certain she was not too tough was the challenge and it required me to think like Susan. She is a nurturing mother and a dog owner. She is a good friend. She can get gussied up and flirt with the best of them. Those softer elements were the challenge. I had to imagine what it would feel like to be doubted simply because of my gender. I had to imagine the stresses on a hardworking single mother.
The lines demarcating gender are far too blurred for me to say definitively what is feminine and what is masculine. A woman might derive every bit as much pleasure as a man out of getting her hands greasy while pulling an engine from a car. But most people would agree that would be an unusual woman and that that interest is mostly considered a male pursuit. Yet there are many men, me among them, that hate to get their hands greasy. So, I encourage aspiring male authors wanting to create strong women to determine the aspects of their make-up that are generally associated with the feminine and capitalize on them. I tell them it's their personal wealth of material for creating strong female character that don't come off like men with women's names.
Secondly, base your female characters on women you know. Women who do not back down from a challenge. Who tackle hard jobs and situations and and aren't beaten down by defeat. Women like Beryl Markham who flew through glass ceilings.
Third, read a lot of both fiction and non-fiction featuring strong women. In the last year, for example I have read: Circling the Sun by Paula McClain, Three Ordinary Girls by Tim Brady, The Personal Librarian, by Marie Benedict, A Woman of no Importance by Sonia Purnell, Josephine Baker's Last Dance by Sherry Jones, American Dirt by Jeanine Cumins and Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre.
While Googling Beryl Markham to learn more about her life, I noticed two photos. The first depicted her at a dinner party beautifully and femininely made-up and dressed right down to the pearls. The second showed her wearing a pilot's helmet, flight jacket and trousers as she boarded her plane, hoping to complete the first crossing of the Atlantic from east to west (she did). That photographic contrast illustrated the challenges and joys of capturing powerful accomplished women.
While preparing this post, it occurred to me that female authors might have their own special challenges when creating strong female characters. So I posed the question to my colleague, Pamela Beason, a strong woman in her own right. "Interesting question, Greg. I think that those of us who are strong characters don't have much of a challenge in crafting one, but some readers may think strong female characters are too tough and too cold and uncaring, so it's best to create a cast of supporting characters that the strong female interacts with and obviously cares about. But a strong female character should never change her behavior to defer to a man's wishes unless it serves her purpose to reach her goal. And then there's the ambition and appearance angles that always must be dealt with. As witnessed every day in politics, even today, ambitious women are considered bitchy while ambitious men are admired; and women's clothing and appearance are always commented on. When was the last time you heard a critique of what a male politician was wearing? Creating a strong female character with soft edges and vulnerabilities is always a challenge."
The first in the Jake Goddard and Susan Brand eco-thriller trilogy. Followed by Some Say Fire and Rare as Earth.